Reviews

'Super Sad True Love Story', Or, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Lenny Abramov

Gary Shteyngart

This story depicts a world that is completely absurd and out of control, which brings a lot of dark humor into it. Yet its truly scary -- you have to wonder if this is the slippery slope the real world is headed down.


Super Sad True Love Story

Publisher: Random House
Length: 337 pages
Author: Gary Shteyngart
Price: $26
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-07
Amazon

In the opening sentences of Gary Shteyngart’s third and latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, his protagonist Lenny Abramov makes this bold announcement: “I am never going to die.”

That may sound like a far-fetched pronouncement, but the near-future world in which the novel is set sees death as something completely avoidable. In fact, part of Lenny’s job is to rope in people with high incomes (known as High Net Worth Individuals or HNWIs) to the company he works for so that they can be bestowed the gift of immortality – for a price, of course, and payable in Chinese Yuan, which is the basic form of currency in Shteyngart’s and Lenny’s brave new America. However, Lenny doesn’t have the money or credit for this kind of treatment – at least, not yet.

Still, the late 30-something New Yorker has good reason to live for a very long time, if not forever. He has just fallen in love with a young Korean-American woman named Eunice Park whom he met while on a prolonged business trip to Italy, and wants that feeling of new love to last as both characters arrive to pick up their lives in the New World of New York. Of course, there are obstacles in Lenny’s quest for immortality.

For starters, his business trip failed to yield suitable recipients for this life-altering technology, which has him on the outs with his company: his desk is removed in his workplace upon his return, and he very tentatively still has a job. What’s more, his liaison with another woman while overseas (before he met Eunice) nearly lands him in hot water with a sort of ramped up version of the US Department of Homeland Security. If that wasn’t enough, Lenny’s own boss, a superior who is 30 years his senior and who has received treatments in immortality, may or may not have designs on Eunice as well. What to do? What to do?

Super Sad True Love Story has a lot going on within its 300-plus pages, so much so that it feels like a book that is twice as long and one that is best read in tiny morsel sized bites to really appreciate and absorb the goings-on in the future America that Shteyngart paints as being on the brink of collapse. Its characters carry iPad-like devices called äppärät that both streams information about other users and broadcasts information about its own user, including how they rank on a certain score that begins with a word rhyming with luck and ending with –ability.

If that wasn’t a suitably creepy breach of privacy, New York in Shteyngart’s world is populated with electronic posts that broadcast your credit rating as you walk past. That’s not all. Young adults reminisce about watching pornography in Kindergarten. Onionskin pants that allow the wearer to display their genitalia to the world are all the rage. The National Guard, which may or may not be backed by the company Lenny works for, patrol the streets at key checkpoints. The US is at war – not with Iraq or Afghanistan, but with Venezuela. Subway cars have a business class for those willing to pay a little extra. And so it goes.

Outside of its primary love story, there’s a lot going on in the margins of this book. It depicts a world that is completely absurd and out of control, which brings a lot of dark humor into the story, yet seems to be true enough in a scary way that you have to wonder if this is the slippery slope the real world is headed down.

The novel is clearly influenced by the work of both William Gibson in its futuristic detail, and early Jonathan Lethem in its surreal zaniness. There’s also a bit of Russian literature to be found in Super Sad True Love Story: Shteyngart references the short stories of Anton Chekhov and there’s also a bit of Vladimir Nabokov to be found as well: while Lenny and Eunice’s love affair is completely legal, Eunice is described as being a bit flat-chested, which invites comparisons to Lolita. Additionally, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a big part in the text in the latter chapters, which is apt as the former details the invasion of the former Soviet Union on the former country of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which has a sort of parallel to the events in Shteyngart’s world.

As for our two protagonists, they couldn’t be more the same and far apart at the same time. Both have the commonality of being the offspring of immigrants: Lenny’s parents are from the former Soviet Union, and Eunice’s kin originally come from, of course, Korea. Both characters are at turns needy and require the approval and recognition of others in order to navigate the turbulent world in which they live. However, they have some major differences to reconcile. That the novel is told from both Lenny and Eunice’s perspectives illustrates at least one of the polarities in question.

Lenny writes his missives in the form of diary entries, which, by the year in this novel’s narrative, are a dated thing of the past. (Nobody reads books in Shteyngart’s world: they are considered outmoded media objects.) Eunice, on the other hand, communicates in the form of Instant Messages and e-mails sent from her personal äppärät account. To go further, Lenny is a bit of a slovenly dresser and has problems with personal hygiene. Eunice, otherwise, is well groomed and up to date on the latest fashions from designer brands such as JuicyPussy and TotalSurrender. Lenny is whiny and a bit of a navel-gazer. Eunice is something of a snobbish hipster. They are, in many ways, a bit of an Odd Couple.

It is to Shteyngart’s credit that you care about these individuals, despite the fact that they have major character flaws. This tension between the two protagonists leaves the reader feeling off-kilter and not sure what is going to happen next in the relationship. The novel’s only real flaw is that you never really get a sense for what our Romeo and Juliet see in each other, particularly from Eunice’s standpoint, because they tend to spend as much time arguing as they are kissing and making up.

It is to Shteyngart’s skill as a writer that each character has an individual voice, even those who are on the periphery of the novel. When Eunice e-mails her mother, who is living in New Jersey, she replies in suitably accurate broken English. When Lenny goes to visit his parents with Eunice, they spend a great deal of time speaking in Russian phrases. When Lenny lets us peek into the world of his friends, one of them speaks with the cadence of a newscaster as he broadcasts his life on his own personal social media stream from a hip new nightclub wryly called Cervix.

However, the real star attraction of this novel is the bleak and droll society that Shteyngart paints. In this world, China has become something of an economic superpower. America’s own veterans of the war in Venezuela have been spat out of the system and left to fend for themselves in city parks, living off of whatever scraps of food and old technology they can find. America is being ruled by a sort of fascist political party, and in turn, has become a one-party state, leaving people to question the loyalty of their friends who may or may not be snoops for the government.

What’s more, America’s immigrant population is ridiculed and referred to as grasshoppers and ants who don’t contribute to the economy because they don’t have enough money to spend. The picture Shteyngart paints, for all of its science-fiction trappings, feels very real and frightening, and in some ways, the sensory overload of images and scenes from this very society threaten to topple the very simple love story that is being told throughout the novel.

When it boils right down to it, Super Sad True Love Story is, by its closing chapters, very sad, bleak and depressing. It also carries a ring of truth to it, not only in the portrayal of its obsessive-compulsive characters but also its depiction of an Earth that is on the verge of a major meltdown. It’s additionally a story about love, ultimately about trying to find it when everything around you is in crisis mode.

Finally, is this book super? That’s an easy question to answer. Undoubtedly, yes. In fact, this is the type of book that people will be reading 20 years from now just to see how closely the world turns out to Shteyngart’s warning shot. Clearly, his vision raises the following question: even in love, is living in a world so full of despair and self-centeredness worth immortality in the hope that things will eventually get better? By the end of this book, an illustration of its author’s particular dexterity, a part of the reader that believes in fairness and things that work out for the best might just, indeed, wither and die. The novel's power in that regard is simply soul-crushing.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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